At the period of our story,
which is the year 1691, and for long after, Handsel Monday was a day of
general festivity in Scotland. On that joyous day, young men and women
congregated at innumerable points, all over the country, for the purposes
of merry-making. Mirth and music filled the land from one end to the
other; and deep on that day was the debauch of the thirsty, and lively and
long continued the dance of the light-heeled and light-hearted.
Handsel Monday was, in
short, in days of yore, in this our ancient kingdom, a day of wild and
reckless glee over the whole breadth and length of the land. It has now
lost much, nearly all, of its original character as a general feature; and
perhaps it is as well that it is so; but it may even yet be found
flourishing, in primitive vigour, in some remote corners of the country;
and, probably, even in some not very distant.
But of all the districts in
Scotland that joined in this festive fray—and there was not one that did
not—there was none that conducted it with so joyous a spirit or with such
hearty good will as Fife. There, the day was celebrated with a glee that
was equalled nowhere else, and with a devotion to the joys of the season
that completed its claims to pre-eminence. Of the prevailing spirit, then,
of the day and the place, the "lang toun," of course, came in for its
share. On that day, Kirkcaldy was all agog, all stir and bustle even by
the break of day; for the revellers took Time by the firelock, and were
early on the field. The particular Handsel Monday to which we refer, was a
delightful day, and remarkably mild for the season; a circumstance which
rendered it peculiarly favourable for the out-of-door sports—such as
throwing the hammer, putting the stone, &c., &c.—that formed the principal
amusements of the occasion.
The great scene of these
pastimes was the sands of Kirkcaldy; and on the occasion of which we
speak, these were, early in the day, crowded with young people of both
sexes— the young men to exhibit their strength and skill, by feats of
personal prowess, and the young women to witness the triumphs of their
lovers. Although, as we have said, the merry groups assembled on the sands
on this day were composed mostly of young folks, yet they were not all
young. There were amongst them a good many of their elders, who came there
to see how their successors conducted themselves, and to revive their
recollections of the days that were past. Amongst these was old Gabriel
Watson, who, in his day, had had no competitor in throwing the stone. He
had beat, by a full yard, Peter Thomson of Pathhead, who was esteemed,
until he suffered this defeat, the man of the most powerful arm in Fife; a
reputation which was, of course, transferred, as it had fallen, by right
of conquest, to Gabriel Watson. But many summers, and winters too, had
past since then. Peter was long gathered to his fathers, and Gabriel was
now an old man. He was then four-and-twenty—he was now seventy-four; still
had not all his strength, by any means, yet departed from him. Gabriel was
still a stalworth carle, and still could throw a stone with the best of
them. It is not, however, his gymnastic fame, great as that certainly was,
that induces us to notice him thus particularly, but a much more
interesting circumstance. This is his having been the grandfather of Mary
Rintoul—and dear to the old man, as the apple of his eye, was the
beauteous, lively, warm-hearted child of his daughter. Peerless—as she
really was—Mary seemed in the eyes of her doting grandfather. Often,
often, did he lay his withered hand on her young head, smoothing down its
golden tresses, and imploring on it all the blessings of Heaven; and no
wonder that the old man’s heart was wrapt up in Mary Rintoul, for to him
she was ever dutiful, and kind, and tender, and affectionate. To
anticipate his wishes was, to her, one of the greatest triumphs, and to
obey them, one of the pleasantest occupations of her innocent life.
We have said that, amongst
the young people assembled on this day on the Seafield sands, there were a
good many old folks. These, however, were not found intermingling much
with the noisy, boisterous crowd of their juniors, nor taking anything
like an active part in their pastimes. They were, for the most part,
otherwise and more characteristically disposed of. At one part of the
sands there was a very singular and remarkable rook, called the Bonnet
Rock a name it had acquired from its peculiar shape, which bore a rude
resemblance to that article of dress—the old Scotch flat bonnet—pointed at
in its designation. Its form altogether, however, taking into account its
particular position and its adjuncts, gave it perhaps a fully stronger
likeness to the roof of a pulpit. It was a thin, flat, projecting table of
rock, formed by the action of the sea, which had wrought its way
underneath it, leaving the upper part as a covering to the cave which it
had thus hollowed out. The edges of this roof on either side had
been originally supported by natural mounds of sand; but these had
latterly been, in greal part, swept away by a succession of extraordinary
high tides. Still the roof remained secure in its airy situation for it
had, to all appearance, a sufficient resting-place behind or on the side
next the land. The cave formed beneath the Bonnet Rock in the way we have
described, was light and spacious, with a natural floor of smooth, white,
firm sand. It was thus both a curious, and, in its way, a pleasant
place—and the good folks of Kirkcaldy thought so; for it was on the sands
around this singular rock that they were assembled on the day of which we
are speaking; and this had been the custom there, on Handsel Mondays, from
time immemorial. But on these occasions the inside of the cave presented
fully as joyous a scene as the out. It was the sort of headquarters of the
revellers, where they went occasionally to refresh themselves, and to
spend the intervals of the sports, for it was the general storehouse, for
the day, of the creature-comforts of the merry-makers—the grand depository
of brandy bottles, and of cakes and kebbucks; chairs and tables, too, were
then there, and long forms ran alongst its walls, for the accommodation of
its frequenters: nay, so complete was its equipment as a banqueting-hall,
a large fire blazed at its further end, to drive away the chill air of the
place, and to make it look more cheerful, and feel more comfortable. It
was here, then, in these hilarious quarters, that the older people were to
be found on this day. Seated around the different tables with the brandy
bottle before them, they talked over the feats of their youth; and,
without being at the trouble of going out to witness the sports of the
young men, were content to learn of their progress from the occasional
visitors to the cave. But these came so thick and frequent—there was such
a constant outgoing and incoming—that the old folks were kept well
informed of all that was passing without.
We need hardly say, that
William Hay was amongst the youngsters on the Seafield sands on this
occasion. Neither need we say, that, he being there, Mary Rintoul would
not likely be far off. In truth, William was at this moment in the thick
and the throng of a crowd of young fellows, who were eagerly engaged in a
trial of strength and dexterity, at throwing the stone; and, within a few
yards of him, along with some other girls of her acquaintance, whose
lovers were also amongst the athletic, stood Mary Rintoul— her eyes
glistening with delight; for William had just thrown the stone a full foot
beyond the most powerful of the competitors, at least he who had been
hitherto reckoned so.
"He has thrown beyond them
a’," said Mary, in a low, modest voice, but with a feeling of triumph,
which, though she endeavoured to suppress, her sparkling eye and glowing
cheek betrayed. "He has thrown beyond them a’," she said, addressing the
girl who stood beside her.
The reply was a disdainful
toss of the head—for the defeated party was her lover—and a remark that
Jamie’s foot had slipped when he threw the stone, "or it wadna be Willie
Hay that wad gang beyond him."
Mary might well have
anticipated this want of sympathy in her triumph, on the part of her
companion; for she was aware of the attachment between Jessy Bell and
James Elphinston; but, in her joy, she had, for a moment, forgotten the
circumstance. Jessy’s remark, however, instantly brought this to her
recollection, and with it a deeper blush on her cheek. But at this moment,
another object suddenly at once engrossed her attention and
relieved her from the embarrassing situation in which she stood with her
"There’s grandfather," she
exclaimed, running towards the old man, who was now indeed seen
approaching the group, of which she herself had just formed a part.
Gabriel’s eyes brightened up, and a smile came over his face when he saw
"Hey! my little gilpie, are
you there?" he said, yielding his hand to the fond grasp of both of hers.
"Whar’s William? But I needna ask," he added, with a sly look— "whan ye’re
here, he canna be far aff."
Mary blushed, and, hanging
down her head, replied that he was "ower there," pointing to the group she
had just left.
"Ay, ye little cutty, I
thooht sae," said Gabriel, stepping on towards the throng, with his
granddaughter in his hand. "The gowk and the tittlin’! Faith, Mary,"he added, as if suddenly reinspired with the spirit and the energy
of his youth, by the mirthful shouts which arose from the crowd that
surrounded the stone-heavers, "I’se hae a throw yet, for auld lang syne.
It’ll maybe be the last. I used to be gay guid at it; and I dinna ken but
I may bother some o’ them yet."
Saying this, he dropped the
hand of his granddaughter and, pushing his way into the centre of the
crowd, exclaimed, "Stand about, ye feckless loons, and let me at the stane.
It’s thirty years this very day since I lifted ane; but I hae pith aneuch
in me yet, I think, to gie some o’ ye the short throw."
Both the old man himself
and his speech were received with shouts of applause; for he was well
known, and much and universally esteemed by all who did know him.
"Well done, Gabriel! well
done, Gabriel! Faith oor auld friend has spunk in him yet," was shouted
from all quarters.
"The deil a ane here’ll
match him yet," said another.
"Faith, ye say true there,
Andrew," replied Peter Blackie, a man not much Gabriel’s junior, to the
asserter of this bold annunciation. "If ye had seen him on this
very spot throwin’ the stane, as I have, some thirty-five years since, ye
wad be still mair sure ye warna far wrang in saying what ye hae said."
Then, raising his voice, so as to be heard by those around him, "I’ll wad
a pint o’ the best brandy in Kirkcaldy, wi’ ony man here, that Gabriel
gangs sax inches at the very least beyond the best o’ ye. Will onybody tak
Nobody would, because
nobody chose to take up a bet against Gabriel, not from a fear of losing,
but from kindly feeling. In the meantime, the old man had stripped his
coat and taken his place at the point from which the stones were heaved;
and was in the act of poising the latter, previous to discharging it, when
he felt himself pulled gently from behind. A little irritated by the
unseasonable interruption, he turned sharply round; but the sight and
transient expression of displeasure exhibited on his countenance, was
quickly replaced by a smile, when he beheld his granddaughter. It was she
who had called his attention from behind.
"Grandfather," she said, "I
hae brocht ye a wee drap brandy, thinkin’ it micht help ye to throw a wee
bit better; for I have often heard ye say, ye aye did that langsyne." And
she produced a tumbler from beneath her shawl, in which might be about a
wine glassful and a half of the liquor she named.
The old man took the
tumbler with a smile of satisfaction but it was evidently more with the
giver than at the gift.
"Thank ye, Mary, my dear,"
he said—"it was very considerate o’ ye, and I’ll tak it with great
pleasure. Anything, Mary, would do me good, oot o’ your hands. Here’s to
ye a’, lads," he added, at the same time drinking off the contents of the
tumbler. "Now," he said, again poising the stone, "by my troth I think I
could throw’t owre Inchkeith."
And, in the next instant,
the stone was sailing through the air. It alighted. The spot was marked by
a deep indentation. A foot-rule was applied; and it was found to be nine
inches and a half beyond the furthest previous throw. A shout from the
bystanders at once proclaimed Gabriel’s triumph and their satisfaction
with his success. Again the stone was put into his hands, again he threw
and six full inches more were added to the distance—a result which put all
chances of successful competition, with the nervous old man, entirely out
of the question. No persuasions, however, could induce him to throw a
"Na, na," he said,
laughing, "I’ll keep what I hae gotten. I’m no gaun to risk the honour I
hae gained. I’ll throw nae mair, neither noo nor hereafter. Ye hae seen
the last o’t wi’ me, lads."
Saying this, the old man
resumed his coat; and, taking his granddaughter by the hand—for she had
remained beside him throughout the whole of the scene just described—left
the ground. On gaining the outside of the throng, they were joined by
William, who, although he had not hitherto interfered, had all along been
keeping a watchful eye on their motions. Having congratulated the old man
on his success, the latter proposed to William that they should adjourn to
the Bonnet Rock.
"You and William may gang,
grandfather," said Mary, " but I canna. I maun gang hame. I promised my
to be hame at twa o’clock, and it’s
noo ten minutes past it. I canna gang, grandfather, on ony account."
"Then, if that’s the case,
I’ll go home with you, Mary," said William, "and join your grandfather at
the Bonnet Rock afterwards."
"Ye’ll do nae sic thing,
either o’ ye," replied the old man, who felt himself particularly happy.
"I’ll tak a’ the wyte frae your mother, Mary, for keepin’ you; and, since
we’re at it, we’ll just mak a day o’t. It’s maybe the last Handsel Monday
I’ll ever see. Indeed, it’s mair than likely—though you twa, I trust, ‘ll
see mony a ane."
"But really, grandfather, I
canna break my promise to my mother; it wad alarm her; she wad think some
mischief had befa’en me," said Mary, showing great reluctance to proceed
towards the Bonnet Rock, whither the whole party were half unconsciously
directing their steps, during this conversation.
"Hoot, your mother’s a fule,
lassie, and ye’re anither,’ replied Gabriel, with a sort of good-natured
impatience, and, at the same time, taking his granddaughter by the arm,
and urging her onwards. Thus pressed, she offered no further resistance;
and the whole three were soon afterwards seated at one of the tables in
the cave of the Bonnet Rock, amidst a numerous assemblage of friends and
acquaintances; and a merry set they were, as any festive occasion ever
brought together. Never had the Bonnet Rock, in truth, seen more joyous
squad—and many a one it had seen. The roof of the cave rung with the
shouts of laughter and glee that rose from the revellers below; and the
laugh and the jest went merrily round.
It was known to the most of
those assembled here on this occasion, that the marriage of William Hay
and Mary Rintoul was to take place on the following day; and the knowledge
was now turned to good account in many a good-humoured joke at the expense
of the young couple. But the approaching nuptials of the betrothed pair
were not thus lightly treated by all. Serious and sincere wishes for their
happiness in the married state were expressed by numbers of those present,
and "long life to them" drank in many a brimming bumper.
During this scene, Mary and
William sat together; and the latter, taking advantage of the obscurity of
the place, as it was now getting dusky, had slipped his arm around the
waist of his fair companion, and was occasionally whispering into her ear
the overflowings of his happiness, of his present and prospective
At this moment, a new cause
of pleasurable excitement struck on the ears of the joyous party in the
cave. This was the sound of pipes. Donald Grant, the town piper of
Kirkcaldy, and as good a performer as ever blew a chanter, was both heard
and seen coming alongst the sands towards the Bonnet Rock, playing, with
might and main, the well-known tune of "Maggie Lauder." On arriving at the
cave, Donald was received with shouts of welcome by its inmates; but their
joy at so timeous and valuable an accession as the piper, was by no means
confined to mere expressions of satisfaction with his presence. It soon
took a more substantial form; bumpers of brandy and lumps of bread and
cheese, short-bread, and currant-bun, were thrust in upon him at all
hands. The former, Donald—who was reputed as good a hand at the pint-stoup
as at the pipes, and that was excellent—nipped off, one after the other,
as fast as they were presented to him; the latter he thrust into the
capacious pockets of his greatcoat, till they could hold no more. Thus
charged and primed, Donald was ready for anything, and therefore at once
agreed to a proposal which was made to him, that he should ascend from the
land side, where it was of easy access, to the top of the Bonnet Rock, and
play some tunes from that conspicuous and elevated situation.
The idea met with universal
approbation; and about a dozen young men, one of whom carried a large
flag, eagerly offered to accompany him. One of them, an intimate friend of
William Hay, just as he was leaving the cave with the rest of Donald’s
escort, called out to the former to come along with them. William smiled
and shook his head, without attempting to move. He felt too happily
situated where he was, with his arm around his intended bride; and this
some of those about him perceived.
"Na, na, faith, ye’ll no
get Willie to gang alang wi’ ye, I warrant," said one; "he’s owre wed whar
he is." Mary held down her head, and blushed, and jogged William to go, in
order to relieve her from the badinage of his lighthearted acquaintance.
"Not a foot, Mary, will I
budge," replied her lover; "let them gibe awa there. They say right. I’m
better pleased whar I am, and therefore here I’ll stay." And he pressed
Mary closer to him.
The last of Donald’s merry
escort had now quitted the cave, and their joyous shouts were immediately
after heard, as they scrambled up the rock behind. The summit was
gained—that is, the roof of the cave; the flag was placed in the centre;
the piper advanced to the front, and again struck up the favourite tune of
"Maggie Lauder." Inspired by the merry strains, the young men who
accompanied Donald began to caper, and dance, and leap about, in all the
madness of the moment’s excitement; whooping and yelling with boisterous
glee. The first part of the play played, the now half breathless
performers assembled in the centre of the flat on which they stood,
surrounding the flagstaff, took off their hats, caps, and bonnets, and set
up one loud and hearty shout; another immediately followed, and they had
already raised the third, when a strange movement was felt beneath their
feet. In the next instant, and before any idea or conjecture whatever
could be formed of the alarming phenomenon, down, with a dead, heavy
crash, went the entire roof of the cave on its ill-starred inmates below
crushing every one of them to death; and it would have done so though each
had had fifty lives, for the superincumbent mass was of many hundred tons’
weight. Huge fragments of rock, and hundreds of cart-loads of sand, and
soil and rubbish, now filled the cave; and all below was silent as the
grave, and motionless, where but an instant before all had been
thoughtlessness and joy. Here, then, was a dreadful catastrophe—a fearful
conclusion to the joyous revelries of the day—an accident unparalleled,
perhaps, in the dismal record of mischances. We need scarcely add, that
this day of feasting in Kirkcaldy was now turned into a day of sad and
gloomy mourning. The reveller, horror-struck, laid down the untasted
goblet, when the dismal intelligence reached him; the musician stopped in
the midst of his merry strains; and the dancers flew from the scene of
levity and mirth to that of death and desolation.